Zambia: Sata sets the Chinese straight

By Gemma Ware in Lusaka
Posted on Thursday, 9 February 2012 23:00

Michael Chilufya Sata, Zambia’s president talks to The Africa Report about how he plans to meet voters’ expectations and make foreign investment benefit the population.Exclusive interview

Six weeks after his election, President Michael Sata still seems unsure about what he is doing at State House. Few really believed he would actually make it here. Now he is reluctant to move in, preferring his own home – where crowds of Zambians thronged the streets the night of his election victory on 22 September. For a politician whose populist Patriotic Front (PF) party has spent the past 10 years campaigning to end the 20-year rule of the Movement for Multi-
party Democracy (MMD), the hushed corridors of the State House feel far removed from his old, busy, noisy office at Farmers House on Cairo Road in downtown Lusaka.

Unpredictable, irritable and with a tendency to shoot from the hip, 74-year-old Sata is no natural diplomat. But he is a seasoned politician, with a reputation for getting things done, for the quick fix. He must deliver one now, having promised jobs, lower food prices and a new constitution within 90 days to his young, urban support base.

Within weeks of the election there were wildcat strikes over poor labour conditions and low pay at Chinese-owned mines. But for all his history of anti-Chinese rhetoric – toned down in the run-up to the polls – so far the man whose acerbic exterior earned him the nickname King Cobra has been more kind than firm. As long as China’s demand for copper holds out, Sata knows he needs “our Chinese friends”.

Some of his appointments have left serious question marks over his claim to be “allergic to corruption”. Sata backtracked over appointing Xavier Chungu, the spy chief to former president Frederick Chiluba, when he saw how it angered Zambians. It was his first misstep, but a big one.

I’ve told the Chinese: when you are in Rome, do as the Romans do

The Africa Report: How are you adjusting to life in State House after 10 years in opposition?

Michael Sata:It’s not easy to adjust here. They restrict what you eat, they restrict whom you talk to, they restrict whom you meet. But all the same, at least we are in the driver’s seat to try and see to it that we can change the rules, that we can apply taxpayers’ money to benefit the poor.

You won 4 percent of the vote in 2001 and 29 percent in 2006. Why do you believe you were able to win in 2011?

We have been very consistent and the people of Zambia have seen that. Our messages were targeted on the poor and from 2001 up to today we still maintain the same thing.

You’ve promised to bring jobs and to redistribute wealth. How?

In less than 90 days you saw the price of fuel coming down; in less than 90 days you will see the price of mealie-meal coming down. So it’s not easy, you cannot overcome those things overnight. You cannot overcome unemployment, you cannot overcome poverty, but our measures, our ministers’ measures, our policies are going towards that direction.

You’ve promised to create jobs for the unemployed. How will you bring local businesses on your side?

We do not need local businesses alone. We need development policies. We have a very ambitious roadworks programme. We are talking to countries like South Korea, Japan, Turkey.

If we go for the areas which target the poor, because if we have one stretch of road, it’s going to hiremore than 1,000- 2,000 low-paid workers, they will have their money in the pocket.

We are looking at the textile industry. We are looking at the factories like Mulungushi textiles, Kafuwe textiles, the sawmills in Ndola, several other things.

And at the same time, good projects like the ones the former president [Rupiah Banda] embarked on in rural-urban areas, we will continue with them, and schools and health which they started.

Do you see the PF victory as part of a desire by the people to readjust China’s terms of engagement in Zambia?

First of all, I’m very grateful to my Chinese friends – they had adjusted before we even decided to introduce any laws to force them to adjust. I have engaged the Chinese, and what I’ve told them: when you are in Rome, do as Romans do.

When we are in China, we do as the Chinese do. We understand and appreciate their dilemma.

They are the largest population in the world and they have pressure on their social services like hospitals and education, but they have come to Zambia.

Zambia is helping them in those areas. They should respect us, they should respect the integrity and the laws of this country, full stop.

An October Human Rights Watch report details labour and safety abuses at Chinese-owned mines. Do you intend to make sure that ends?

As I said when I met the Chinese, don’t blame the Chinese 100 per cent. You blame the government of the day.

If the Chinese are breaking the law and the government is looking on the other side, don’t blame the Chinese.

Blame the person who is supposed to implement that law,who is looking on the otherside, whether he has been corrupted or otherwise because he is ignorant.

It’s already changing, because my ministers have engaged the Chinese. You remember when the Chinese said they had fired 2,000 [workers for Non-Ferrous Corporation Africa on 20 October]?

They were just told, “Bring them back, that’s their human right to ask for wage increase or better conditions of service.” And the Chinese did not open guns shooting people.

So you find things seem to be going in the right direction. How do you see your victory as part of a greater change across Africa?

African politics have changed from semantics to reality. From 2001 to 2006 and 2008, we have been very consistent.

We have been talking on behalf of the poor, on behalf of the voiceless. And what’s happening now is very equivalent to the wind of change in 1962-1963.

The wind of change in Africa from the Cape to Cairo was people became brave enough to talk about the colonial masters.

That’swhat we are doing. If somebody doesn’t care about his own people, there’s no difference between him and a colonial master.

If a person lives in a sand castle, it’s no difference [between] him and a colonial master, and it’s even worse for a black exploiting another black.

What’s your view of what’s happened in Libya?

The turbulence which was there in the three countries [Tunisia, Egypt and Libya], this again goes to tell us, if you perpetuate to remain in power, you’ll be forced out.

And that’s why a number of countries have praised Zambia for a smooth handover because there wasn’t perpetuation.

There was no need of forcing Mr Banda out of power, the vote forced him.

You’ve said you’re allergic to corruption, yet you were considering Xavier Chungu as a permanent secretary for Luapula Province. Are you worried about the signal that could send?

No, I’m not. I believe in the English law. The English law says a person is deemed innocent until he’s proved guilty.

Chungu has been appearing in courts for seven years … This Xavier Chungu has never been convicted.

And the people who raised their eyebrows, their friends benefited a lot more from the so-called Task force [on Corruption] because those lawyers were making $20,000 a month…

And if there were no other considerations, Chungu would have still been the permanent secretary of Luapula Province, because he’s a free person.

He’s very, very free. You have appointed a number of people from previous administrations… I know this country better than a number of these young boys and girls.

I am over 70. I was here at independence, I saw UNIP [United National Independence Party], I saw Chiluba’s government, I broke away from Chiluba’s government.

The reason why people in Zambia have had a raw deal is because … the so-called newcomer has only one suit.

He would like to have 15 suits, becomes corrupt. I went to bring [Francis] Chalabesa, first principal private secretary for Frederick Chiluba.

He is not looking at how many cellphones he’s going to have. If we have to fight corruption, you have to find people who will not be looking at your jacket and thinking how can they get it.

Is Zambia rightly classified as a lower middle-income country?

Whoever was classifying it, they were looking at the international statistics. When they compare the amount of money that we are exporting in the minerals and they divide with the population, they arrive at the middle income, which the people are not seeing.

But this time, people are going to see what we mean, because I have already directed that nothing will be exported from Zambia without the money coming back to Zambia.

You told us in April that a copper windfall tax is not the right policy to adopt. Mines minister Wylbur Simuusa told us he thinks it could be the answer. What’s your position?

Wylbur Simuusa is a mining engineer, he’s not an economist like me. When you have a predictable tax, you attract more investors.

If somebody doesn’t care about his no difference between him and own people, there’s a colonial master

When you have a punitive tax, you don’t attract investors. The taxes we are talking about, if the money came back from wherever they [investors] are to Zambia, you discount that money, you’ll have all these commercial banks who become viable.

And they will have enough money to lend to the local entrepreneurs. I will not even encourage a windfall tax. Why a windfall tax?

You don’t need a windfall tax, you need a predictable tax on everything. President Robert Mugabe praised Zambia’s handover of power.

Are you ready to be a broker ahead of Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections?

Zambia has played a very pivotal role in the liberation struggle of the countries surrounding Zambia.

Zambia hosted the freedom fighters to great resentment of the Western countries and the regimes which were ruling in these previous countries.

We have to play a role to assist our brothers and sisters in the region. The person [who is] most important in Zimbabwe is the Zimbabweans, not Robert Mugabe.

Robert Mugabe is just a leader. Not Morgan Tsvangirai, and in Zambia not Michael Sata. But the people.

What is your reaction to comments from UK Prime Minister David Cameron that aid might be affected by a country’s stance on homosexuality?

That doesn’t worry me. Homosexuality, lesbianism, does not worry me because our laws in Zambia have got restrictions, and those restrictions, we are not changing them.

When our colleagues in England say, “Don’t harass this type of people”, they are not saying regularise them. They’re just saying, “Don’t harass them.”

You’ve promised a lot in 90 days. What happens if you don’t deliver?

The Chinese have a saying. A long journey begins with one step. People are already seeing action … If you are building a road from here to Chirundu, you won’t finish in 90 days.

Those are the things that people must understand.

This article was first published in the November edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands,
via our print subscription or our digital edition.

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